Six Degrees from Lincoln in the Bardo to Iris

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, a book I haven’t read.

Lincoln in the Bardo

It’s about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War. Willie finds himself trapped in a transitional realm – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – and as ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Moving from a fictional and highly original book by the looks of it my chain goes next to a biographical account of Lincoln:

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a biography of Abraham Lincoln and others, by  Doris Kearns Goodwin, a book I bought after watching the film, Lincoln, which is loosely based on this book covering the final four months of Lincoln’s life. Goodwin examines his relationships with three men he selected for his cabinet, all of whom were opponents for the Republican nomination in 1860: William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates.

Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing

Writing biography is the subject of Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing by Hermione Lee, a collection of essays on Shelley,  T S Eliot, J M Coetzee, Jane Austen, Eudora Welty  and Virginia Woolf, to name but a few. Lee explores the relation of biography to fiction and history and of the connection of writers’ lives to their works.

So my next link is a collection of essays by Virginia Woolf –

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, originally published in 1942 by Leonard Woolf. Virginia had been getting together essays, which she proposed to publish in the autumn of 1941, or the spring of 1942. She had left behind her many essays, sketches and short stories, some of which had been previously published in newspapers, which he decided were worth republishing and in this book he also included some of those previously unpublished.

The title essay is a meditation on the nature of life and death seen through the perspective of a moth. It flies by day, fluttering from side to side of a window pane. As the day progresses the moth tires and falls on his back. He struggles vainly to raise himself. Woolf watches, realising that it is useless to try to do anything to help and ponders the power of death over life.

Moths provide the next link  – to a novel, The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams.

Behavior Of Moths

This is the story of two sisters, Ginny and Vivi. Vivi, the younger sister left the family mansion 47 years earlier and returns unexpectedly one weekend. Ginny, a reclusive moth expert has rarely left the house in all that time.  What happens when they meet again is shocking to both of them. It’s a story full of mystery and suspense as it is revealed that the two have very different memories of their childhood and the events of the past. Two events in particular affected their lives. One was when Vivi, aged 8, fell from the bell tower and nearly died. The story alternates between the past and the present as Ginny recalls their lives.

Bell‘ is the next link in my chain – to Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell, a book with an impending sense of evil and menace. It looks at the angst and self-denial of the relationship between religion and sex.

The Bell

A lay community lives next to an enclosed order of nuns, a new bell is being installed and then the old bell, a legendary symbol of religion and magic  is retrieved from the bottom of the lake. The legend of the bell is that it fell into the lake after a 14th century Bishop had cursed the Abbey when a nun was discovered to have a lover and had drowned herself.

And my final link is to a book about the author of The Bell, Iris Murdoch – Iris: A Memoir by John Bayley.

Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch

I first read this in 2003. It’s a very loving and touching account. Iris died in February 1999 after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Bayley explained how he had coped emotionally and practically with the illness that beset the woman he loved and cherished.

Writing this post as disrupted my reading because I got Bayley’s book off the shelves and began reading it again. He writes in such a warm and affectionate way that I’ve decided to read it right away.

For once there is no crime fiction in my chain! It contains books pondering the nature of life and death, beginning with a meditation on the death of Willie Lincoln and ending with a memoir of the life of Iris Murdoch.

Next month (March 3, 2018), the chain begins with a controversial book that Kate reports had everyone talking in the nineties – The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. Everyone that is, apart from me – I don’t know anything (yet) about this book.

Six Degrees from No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency to White Nights

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, a book I haven’t read although I have watched the TV version.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency  (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency #1)

Precious Ramotswe is a kind, warm-hearted and large African lady. She is also the only female private detective in Botswana. Her agency – the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – is the best in the country. With help of her secretary, Mma Makutsi, and her best friend, Mr JLB Matekoni, she solves a number of difficult problems. A missing husband, a missing finger and a missing child – she will solve these mysteries in her own special way.

Although I haven’t read No.1 Ladies Detective Agency I have read a few of Alexander McCall Smith’s books including The Careful Use of Compliments, an Isabel Dalhousie Novel, one of the Sunday Philosophy Club series, set in Edinburgh.

The Careful Use of Compliments (Isabel Dalhousie, #4)

Isabel has just had a baby, Charlie, and is in a relationship with his father, Jamie (14 years her junior) who is her niece’s, ex-boyfriend. There is a mystery about a painting, whether or not it is a forgery, but for me it’s the philosophical questions that are always uppermost in Isabel’s mind and conversations, her way of ‘interring’ in matters which she considers ‘helping’, and her kindhearted nature that was more interesting.

The next link in my chain is to an another book set in Edinburgh. The Inspector’s Daughter by Alanna Knight, the first in the Rose McQuinn Mystery series, set in Edinburgh in 1895, when the Forth Railway Bridge had just been opened.

The Inspector's Daughter

Rose, recently returned from America’s Wild West, steps into the shoes of her father, DI Faro. She lives in an isolated house at the foot of Arthur’s Seat and is helped by a wild deerhound who appears just when she needs him.

Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano within Holyrood Park, east of Edinburgh Castle is also mentioned in Ian Rankin’s The Falls, the 12th Inspector Rebus book.

The Falls (Inspector Rebus, #12)

Rebus investigates the disappearance of ‘Flip’ a university student. One lead is a carved wooden doll found in a tiny coffin. Rebus concentrates on the tiny coffin and finds a whole series of them had turned up over the years dating back to 1836 when 17 were found on Arthur’s Seat.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Tales of Terror

In The Falls Rankin also refers to Burke and Hare, the 19th century resurrectionists and this leads me on to the next link in my chain – to The Body Snatcher, which is one of the Tales of Terror by Robert Louis Stevenson, published in the same volume as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This is a traditional Christmas ghost story, beginning with four men gathered in an inn on a dark winter’s night telling tales of grisly deeds as they sit round the fireside. One of the stories is based on the activities of body snatchers, Burke and Hare in Edinburgh in the 1820s.

The next book, also by Robert Louis Stevenson is in contrast to his tale of terror  – it’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, poems I loved as a child.

This is one of my favourite poems – it brings to mind the power  and fury of the wind:

Windy Nights

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he;
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.

The last link in my chain is to a book with Nights in its title – White Nights by Ann Cleeves, the second in her Shetland Quartet, featuring DI Jimmy Perez. The ‘white nights’ are the summer nights when the sun never really goes down.

White Nights (Shetland Island, #2)

It’s set mainly in Biddista, a fictional village where artist Bella Sinclair throws an elaborate party to launch an exhibition of her work at The Herring House, a gallery on the beach. The party ends in farce when one the guests, a mysterious Englishman, bursts into tears and claims not to know who he is or where he’s come from. The following day the Englishman is found hanging from a rafter, and Jimmy Perez is convinced that the man has been murdered.

From books about different detective series my chain moved through a tale of terror, then to a children’s book of poetry and back to another murder mystery –  from Botswana to Edinburgh and the Shetland Isles.

Next month (February 3, 2018),  the chain begins with the book that won the Man Booker Prize in 2017 – Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

Six Degrees from It to The Vanishing Box

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with It by Stephen King – in the storm drains, in the sewers, IT lurks, taking on the shape of every nightmare, each one’s deepest dread. Sometimes IT appears as an evil clown named Pennywise and sometimes IT reaches up, seizing, tearing, killing…


I haven’t read It but I have read  a few of Stephen King’s books including Joyland, which is a ghost story, a love story, a story of loss and heartbreak, set in a funfair. It’s also a murder mystery and utterly compelling to read. (my review)


The next link in my chain is to an another ghost story – Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, a chilling book, very chilling, both in the setting in the High Arctic and in atmosphere.

Dark Matter

It’s a ghost story in the form of a diary – that of Jack Miller who in 1937 was part of an expedition to the High Arctic to study its biology, geology and ice dynamics and to carry out a meteorological survey. As the darkness descends, Jack is left alone at the camp and his nightmare really begins. And it is very scary! (my review)

I’m moving away from dark and scary stories to another book with ‘matter in its title – to Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill.

Alive, Alive Oh!: and Other Things that Matter

It’s only a short book but it covers a wide range of Diana Athill’s memories, many images of beautiful places, and the friends and lovers she has known. The chapters follow on chronologically but are unconnected except for the fact that they demonstrate her love of life. It was heart breaking to read her remarkably candid account of  the miscarriage she had when she was in her early 40s and she nearly died. (my review)

Katherine of Aragon also suffered from miscarriages during her marriage to Henry VIII. Antonia Fraser’s Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen is fictional biography at its most straight forward, written in an uncomplicated style.

It’s a long and comprehensive study, told from Katherine’s point of view it follows her life from the time she arrived in England at the age of sixteen to marry Prince Arthur, the elder of Henry VII’s two sons, to her death in 1536. (my review)

Another Katherine living in the Tudor period is Lady Katherine Grey, who was one of the heirs to the throne and a rival to the Tudor Queens, Mary and Elizabeth I. Leanda de Lisle tells her story and that of her sisters in The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: The tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey. 

The Sisters Who Would Be Queen


Lady Jane Grey  is remembered in British history as the monarch with the shortest reign… just nine days. In 1553 after the death of her cousin, the protestant King Edward VI she was proclaimed Queen in place of his Catholic half sister, Mary Tudor. Mary overthrew Jane 13 days later, and she was tried for treason, found guilty and was executed. (this is one of my TBR books)

Lady Jane Grey features in The Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths, the fourth book in the DI Stephens and Max Mephisto series.

Lily Burtenshaw was murdered. She was found in her room tied to a chair, leaning forward and pointing to an empty crate with ‘King Edward Potatoes’ written on the side. She had been posed to look like Lady Jane Grey in the painting by Delaroche, of her execution at the moment she was being helped to lay her head upon the block. (my review)

My chain began with a book  about a scary clown, moved to a scary funfair to yet another scary book set in the Arctic. It then travelled to a different matter – that of miscarriages, then to the sister of a short-lived queen and finally to a murder mystery in which the victim was posed as Lady Jane Grey.  From America to England in both the past and the present, from fiction to historical biography and then to a murder mystery – from horror to murder in six steps!

Next month January 6, 2018), the chain will begin with an international bestseller (that I haven’t read) – Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency.

Joyland by Stephen King

I’m so glad I read Joyland by Stephen King – it’s so good.


I nearly didn’t buy it, put off by the cover (you should never judge a book by its cover!) and by the publishers, Hard Case Crime – it was the word ‘hard‘ that really made me pause, especially when I looked at their site and saw they publish ‘the best in hardboiled crime fiction‘. Not being quite sure just what ‘hard boiled crime fiction‘ is, I looked it up. This is Encyclopædia Britannica‘s definition:

Hard-boiled fiction, a tough, unsentimental style of American crime writing that brought a new tone of earthy realism or naturalism to the field of detective fiction. Hard-boiled fiction used graphic sex and violence, vivid but often sordid urban backgrounds, and fast-paced, slangy dialogue.

Not my sort of book, at all! But it’s by Stephen King and I like his books, so I did buy it. It’s not ‘hard boiled fiction‘ as defined above. The only way it fits that definition is that there is a lot of slang in it – ‘carny’ slang, which King explains in his Author’s Note is what he calls in this book ‘the Talk‘. It is ‘carnival lingo, an argot both rich and humorous’. So not ‘hard boiled’ at all!

Joyland is a ghost story, a love story, a story of loss and heartbreak. It’s also a murder mystery and utterly compelling to read.

It’s narrated by Devin Jones, looking back forty years at the time he was a student, suffering from a broken heart, as his girlfriend had just rejected him and he spent a summer working at Joyland, in North Carolina, an amusement park with ‘a little of the old-time carny flavor‘.

Along with various rides, ‘Happy Hounds’, and a palm-reader, there is the Horror House, a ‘spook’ house which is said to be haunted by the ghost of Linda Gray, whose boyfriend cut her throat in the Horror House. The boyfriend had not been found and it appears he may be a serial killer as there had been four other similar murders in Georgia and the Carolinas.

It’s also a story of friendship, of Tom and Erin, of children with the ‘sight’, a young boy in a wheelchair and his mother, and Dev’s search for the killer.

I loved the setting of the funfair, Dev’s nostalgia for his youth, his sensitivity, and the images the story evokes – it’s not just the story but the way King tells his tale, with just a touch of horror and the supernatural.

Who knows – maybe I should read some more of Hard Case Crime’s publications!

Reading ChallengesReaders.Imbibing.Peril XI.

Recent Additions at BooksPlease


From top to bottom: the first seven in the pile are from Barter Books in Alnwick, my favourite bookshop where you can either swap or buy books. I took seven books in and came home with another seven. I love browsing at Barter Books and always find books I want to read.

  • Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott – I had to search round the various places fiction is shelved in Barter Books before I found this book in the Romance section. It’s by Agatha Christie, writing as Mary Westmacott. The books she wrote under this pseudonym are a complete change from her crime fiction – she was such a versatile writer. Her daughter, Rosalind, called them ‘bitter-sweet stories about love’. It was first published in 1944.
  • Arms and the Women by Reginald Hill – I’ve been collecting his books in an attempt to read them in chronological order. This is the 18th Dalziel and Pascoe mystery in which Ellie, Pascoe’s wife is in danger at a decaying seacoast mansion.
  • An April Shroud by Reginald Hill – the 4th Dalziel and Pascoe mystery, set in a solitary mansion in the Lake District where Pascoe is spending his honeymoon.
  • The House by the Churchyard by Sheridan Le Fanu – the Horror section is right next to Crime Fiction and I don’t usually look there but as I walked past this book caught my eye as it was displayed in one of the holders on the side of the bookcase, maybe because I’m taking part in the R.I.P. event at the moment. Le Fanu was described by Henry James as in the ‘first rank of ghost writers‘. Set in the 1760s in Ireland, it begins with the accidental disinterment of an old skull and an eerie late-night funeral.
  • A Game of Sorrows by Shona MacLean – the second book in the Alexander Seaton series. I’ve read the first and the third so I was pleased to find this one. It’s set in 1628 in Ulster as Seaton investigates a family curse – a family divided by secrets and bitter resentments.
  • The Collector by John Fowles – another author whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past. This could also be a choice for the R.I.P. event. It’s described as a thriller with psychological and social overtones, the story of a kidnapping.
  • A Walk Along the Wall by Hunter Davies – I was really pleased to find this book Hadrian’s Wall is the most important Roman monument in Britain. Hunter Davies grew up at one end of the wall and was inevitably drawn to walk its length. It’s part history, part guidebook and part personal experience and gives readers a taste of what life was like in this remote part of Britain 2000 years ago.

The bottom two books in the pile aren’t from Barter Books:

  • The Black Caravel by Harry Nicholson is a book the author sent to me for review. It’s his second novel, a sequel to ‘Tom Fleck‘ which I reviewed in 2011. It begins and ends at Hartlepool in 1536, the year of The Pilgrimage of Grace, as Barbary corsairs are raiding northwards.

and finally a birthday present (in August):

  • Rowan’s Well by C J Harter – a psychological thriller (another one for  R.I.P. maybe). Rowan’s Well is a remote house on the north-east coast of England, home to the charismatic Brooke family, the scene of murder and betrayal.

I want to start reading them all – now!

She Never Came Home by Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen

She Never Came Home is a perfect little ghost story for Halloween. Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen spins a suspenseful story of Alice and her husband Peter and their little dog, Foxy as they move into an old farmhouse deep in the Danish countryside. Just why is Foxy nervous about the cupboard under the sink, what is in the bedrooms upstairs that are excluded from their tenancy agreement, and why has the house been empty for over thirty years?

Both Peter and Alice are out of work, but Peter still has to work out his notice in Germany and leaves Alice alone in the house… Alice slowly discovers the horrible truth.

I really liked this short story, with its chilling atmosphere and shocking twist at the end. In just a few pages Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen has written such a compelling and entertaining tale.

This is my last entry in this year’s R.I.P. challenge and another one for the My Kind of Mystery challenge.

Cauldstane by Linda Gillard

Linda Gillard describes her book, Cauldstane  as ‘a gothic novel in the romantic suspense tradition of Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart & Victoria Holt.‘ It is a ghost story, set in a Scottish tower house in the Highlands:

Cauldstane stood, heroic, long-suffering, defying all that the centuries had thrown at it. (Wet rot and dry rot have proved more damaging to many a castle than the depredations of enemy artillery). I saw an ivy-clad tower, much taller than it was wide, with more windows than I could easily count, the whole topped by conical-roofed turrets and looking, from a distance, like a toy. (page 6)

The narrator is Jenny Ryan who is employed by Sholto MacNab, a retired adventurer and Laird of the castle, to ghost write his memoirs. Cauldstane, a beautiful castle is fast falling into disrepair and the MacNabs are struggling to maintain or even keep it.

When he employs Jenny Sholto jokes that every castle should have its ghost. Cauldstane not only has a ghost, there is also the MacNab curse, which affects the women the McNabs marry, with three deaths (two accidents and a suicide) attributed to the curse, and the legend of the Cauldstane claymore, supposed to possess supernatural powers to protect the MacNabs from evil.

Jenny immediately falls in love with the castle, but as she settles in a few things begin to disturb her – her notes on her laptop disappear. As she learns more about the MacNabs and their history, family secrets begin to surface. But what is the truth behind these stories? It seems to hinge on Meredith, Sholto’s second wife who was killed in a horrific car crash.

Cauldstane is peopled by well drawn colourful characters, a beautifully described atmospheric setting and a wealth of story-telling, recreating the past seamlessly interwoven with the present. Jenny not only falls in love with the castle, but also with Sholto’s heir, his son Alec and as she does so more strange events occur and it becomes obvious that there is a malign presence in the castle that doesn’t want her there. And it makes its presence known in a modern way – through Jenny’s laptop. No ghostly visions or  spooky voices, but a thoroughly evil presence capable of writing on the laptop as well as moving objects and putting Jenny’s life in danger, along with the music that apparently only Jenny can hear.

As well as being a gripping tale Cauldstane is also about fear. The epigraph from The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1914) sets the tone: ‘Ghost: the outward and visible sign of an inward fear‘.  The MacNabs are not the only ones with things to fear in their past, for Jenny too has a troubled past and both have to learn how to overcome their fears. Cauldstane is also about loss and revenge, about good versus evil and the power of love.

Linda Gillard lives in the Scottish Highlands. She has written seven novels. I enjoyed this one very much but my favourite of hers is still Star Gazing. For more information about Linda Gillard and her books see her website, Linda Gillard – Author.

Reading challenges: Read Scotland 2014, My Kind of Mystery and R.I.P. IX.